`Dark energy' tore universe, scientists say

`Cosmic jerk' occurred about 5 billion years ago, astronomers determine

October 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CLEVELAND - Astronomers said yesterday that they had determined the time in cosmic history when a mysterious force, "dark energy," began to wrench the universe apart.

Some 5 billion years ago, said Adam Riess, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the universe experienced a "cosmic jerk."

Before then, he said, the combined gravity of the galaxies and everything else in the cosmos was resisting the cosmic expansion, slowing it down. Since the jerk, though, the universe has been speeding up.

The results were based on observations by a multinational team of astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to search out exploding stars known as Type 1a supernovae, reaching back in time three-quarters of the way to the big bang in which the universe was born.

The results should help quell any remaining doubts that the expansion of the universe is really accelerating, a strange-sounding notion that has become one of the pillars of a new and widely accepted model of the universe.

The theory maintains that the universe is full of mysterious dark matter and even more mysterious dark energy.

"This gives great confidence that we've been on the right track," said Riess, who announced his results at a meeting on the future of cosmology, sponsored by the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University and by the Kavli Institute.

Joseph Lykken, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, known as Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., said, "I could go home now and be happy."

Knowing how and when the jerk took place, astronomers said, is an important step in the process of figuring out just what the dark energy is.

"He gave us information about when the universe hit the gas pedal," said Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago who is director of mathematics and physics at the National Science Foundation. Different theories, he said, predict different times for the transition.

The result was also a kind of personal vindication for Riess, who was a pivotal member of one of two competing groups of astronomers who discovered the cosmic acceleration five years ago.

The groups were using supernovae to chart the expansion of the universe at different times in the past.

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